Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
When Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis ran for President against George H. W. Bush in 1988, he made competence one of his major campaign themes. Instead of claiming to be a visionary politician or a champion of liberalism, Dukakis highlighted his technocratic managerial expertise. “This election isn’t about ideology,” Dukakis argued, “It’s about competence. It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values – old-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth.”
The appeal didn’t work. More voters were drawn to Vice President Bush, whose campaign manager Lee Atwater, along with consultant Roger Ailes, put together a blistering strategy that smeared Dukakis and rallied Americans around an unabashed patriotism. While Dukakis promised competence, Bush painted him as a radical “card-carrying member of the ACLU” who would allow Americans to burn flags and let dangerous criminals out of prison.
After Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency and the emergence of Covid-19, competence might carry more weight among Americans in 2021 than it did in 1988. President Joe Biden faces immense challenges as his term gets underway. Trying to end the pandemic will not be easy, and the vaccine rollout has been hamstrung by insufficient supplies. There has been considerable confusion over the plan to reopen schools and the administration’s contradictory statements on the issue have already drawn criticism. Millions of Americans are still out of work, and the US’ global standing has taken a hit over the last four years.
This week, devastating storms left millions of Texans without heat, electricity and water as the state’s power grid seems to be holding on by a thread. The President declared a major disaster and ordered federal assistance, but what comes next will be key.
The way Biden governs on these and other issues will matter a great deal to his political standing. The first hundred days always loom large as an initial measure of success since Presidents are judged right off the bat by their ability to govern, implement policies and wield the levers of federal government efficiently.
Many Presidents have suffered political blows for their failure in these areas. President George H.W. Bush lost support going into the 1992 election when he failed to respond to Hurricane Andrew in Florida with sufficient resources. Though he declared a major disaster in the immediate aftermath of the storm, it took days before the military was deployed, even though it had been prepared to offer assistance before the hurricane hit. One official in Dade County asked, “Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?”
His son George W. Bush fell from favor in an even more dramatic fashion with his halting and failed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush was famously accused of not caring about the plight of African Americans, and his anti-government philosophy took a hit once it emerged that FEMA’s budget had been cut in the years before Katrina.
Former President Barack Obama faced a political hiccup when the rollout of the website for the Affordable Care Act ran into technical difficulties.
Trump, on the other hand, was severely damaged by his dysfunctional response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which involved spreading disinformation rather than relying on science to formulate a systematic and thoughtful public health plan.
Competence matters in a different way for Biden. Given the radicalized state of the Republican Party, where partisan interests have continually triumphed over the needs of governance and the health of our democratic institutions, Democrats now need to deliver results when it comes to showing that they take governing more seriously. Though many of the challenges that Biden faces are not his fault, they are certainly now his responsibility. Democrats have to prove that they can handle the nuts and bolts of making government work, and do so in a way that has a tangible effect on voters. It will be difficult, but Biden can make a difference when it comes to his administration’s response to the pandemic and the power failure in Texas.
Biden ran on stability and competence. While some candidates boast of their big ideas and persuade through dramatic rhetorical skills, Biden was all about the deep experience he brought to the table after his decades-long run in the Senate was capped with eight years as vice president. Faced with the sheer chaos of the last four years, Biden promised normality. In many respects, this meant a government that could simply do its job. Biden campaigned on his ability to handle crises in rational and effective ways. For Biden to fulfill his promises, few things loom as large as his skill in governance.
As a nation, we are fortunate that this is a key element of the Biden presidency. Instead of being stuck with an unhinged President who might bring us into war for no reason, or an administration that drops the ball in the face of a crisis, we are back to measuring the commander-in-chief through his competence on the job. For the nation, this should come as a relief.
But tackling these challenges won’t be easy. The devil is in the details and right now many devils are staring the President right in the face.
If he can’t handle the challenges, the administration could easily open the door to big Republican gains in the 2022 midterm elections. If, however, he brings relief to Texas and oversees the rapid vaccination of the majority of the country with the same competence he has shown with shepherding the $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus relief bill, he might find himself with a second window of opportunity to tackle big legislative breakthroughs that might cement his legacy – and move the country forward.